Beit Shean

Exploring Beit Shean: A Visitor’s Guide

If you want to relive the glory days of ancient Rome, this well-preserved archaeological site in Israel is one of the top tourist attractions in the country to visit. Much of the Roman city has managed to survive, with the colonnades and temple remains offering you a chance to get a glimpse into the lifestyle here under Roman rule. The setting, in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, is extraordinarily dramatic, adding to the intoxicating air of grandeur of the past.

Romeins theater

Romeins theater

Start your sightseeing tour at the Roman Theater. Built during the reign of Septimius Severus, during the late 2nd century AD, the Roman Theater of Beit Shean is the best preserved in Israel. It could seat 6,000 spectators, with the lower part of the structure built into the ground and with semi-circular rows of seats. The upper part is born on massive substructures, with nine entrances leading to the horizontal gangway halfway through the hall. The upper seats are partially destroyed, but the lower rows are well preserved. There are also substantial remains of the stage wall, which was originally richly decorated with columns and statues.

Read also: 12 top tourist attractions in Sicily

Zeg el-Husn

Zeg el-Husn
Zeg el-Husn

Directly north of the Roman Theater is Tell el-Husn, the main attraction of the archaeological site. Excavations on this settlement mound in the 1920s revealed stele and statuary dating back to the Egyptian period. Much of what was excavated (including a stele of Pharaoh Sethos I and a stele depicting the war goddess Anat) is now on display at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Further excavations since 1986 have yielded such impressive results that Beit Shean now ranks as one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel. If your visit falls short, due to the sheer amount of ruins in this area, Tell el-Husn should be at the top of your list of things to do while at the site.

Since Beit Shean was destroyed by an earthquake shortly after the Arab conquest, the building materials of the ancient city were not – as was the case in Caesarea, for example – reused in later buildings. This simplified the work for archaeologists, who only had to repair walls and structures that had collapsed during the earthquake.


In the southern part of the site, another excellently preserved Roman and Byzantine theater, also seating 6,000 spectators, has been brought to light. North of this is one bathhouse of the Byzantine period, centered on a colonnaded courtyard around three sides and retaining remnants of the original mosaic and marble decoration. A fine Tyche mosaics (6th century AD) was found in a Byzantine building immediately northeast of the baths; it shows Tyche, goddess of fate and luck, holding the cornucopia, which was one of her attributes.

From the bath house, steps lead to one colonnade street connecting the theater and baths to the center of the city. At the north end is a wide staircase leading to the remains of a Roman Temple of Dionysus. East of this temple are foundations and architectural fragments belonging to a nymphaeum and a basilica it served as a meeting place and marketplace in Roman times. Southeast of the basilica, a row of monolithic Roman columns and part of a Byzantine shopping street lead to the southern part of the city.

Byzantine remains

Byzantine remains sharon mckellar / photo modified Share:
Byzantine remains sharon mckellar / photo modified Share:

Byzantine remains were found to the north of Zeg el-Husn, on the other side of the Harod Valley. Here, in AD 567, a noble lady named Maria and her son Maximus founded one monastery, with fine mosaics now under a protective roof. The entrance leads into a large trapezoidal courtyard, with a mosaic sidewalk images of animals and birds, two Greek inscriptions and in the center – within a circle of 12 figures representing the months – the sun god Helios and the moon goddess Selene. On the left is a rectangular room with a mosaic, which records an inscription “was completed in the time of Abbot George and his deputy Komitas.” Other mosaics (vines, hunters, animals) are in a small room opposite the entrance, as well as in the eastern part of the cloister, the narthex of the church and in the church itself. In the sanctuary are tombstones inscribed in Greek.


Beit Shean
Seraglio benito roveran / photo modified

The Seraglio (the former Ottoman government building) is located on the east side of Beit Shean and acts as a visitor center for the archaeological site. Note the antique columns that frame the doorway to the building. From here, King Saul Street bears right and passes through an area where remains of a Roman racecourse were found and come to a road on the right, which leads down to the Romeins theater. Inside the building itself is useful information about the history of the site, and just outside is a good scale model of what Beit Shean would have looked like in Roman times.

Tips and tactics: How to get the most out of your visit to Beit Shean

  • Bring a sun hat and plenty of water – especially in the summer. It is extremely hot at the campsite and there is little shade.
  • From Jerusalem, bus 961 has several daily departures to Tiberias, which passes Beit Shean. The journey takes two hours.
  • From Tiberias, you can also take bus 961, which drops off passengers at Beit Shean on their way to Jerusalem. The journey takes one hour.


American archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania conducted excavations here in 1921-23 and identified 18 occupations, the earliest dating to the 4th millennium BC. Beit Shean first appears in records in Egyptian documents from the 19th century BC. After his conquest of Canaan in the 15th century BC, Pharaoh Thutmose III fortified the city. In the 11th century it was conquered by the Philistines who moved inland from the sea.

David captured the Philistine city, which was abandoned for unknown reasons in the 8th century BC. In the 3rd century BC it was refounded by Scythian veterans and renamed Scythopolis. In the Hasmonean period (2nd and 1st centuries BC), numbers of Jews came to live in the city. In 63 BC, Pompey declared it a free city, and it became a member of the Decapolis, the League of Ten Cities. Under Roman rule, thanks to its prolific agricultural and textile industry, it enjoyed a new period of prosperity, as evidenced by its numerous remains.

In Byzantine times, the city had about 40,000 inhabitants; most of them were Christians, but there was also a Jewish community. This period came to an end with the Arab conquest in 639, and shortly afterwards the city was destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned.

In the 12th century, Beit Shean was held by Tancred, Prince of Galilee. After its conquest by Saladin in 1183, the city had a Jewish population, of which Rabbi Estori Haparhi was a member, who wrote the earliest work in Hebrew on the geography of Palestine. Later more and more Arabs settled in the city and the name was changed to Beisan. A remnant of the Turkish period is the Seraglio in the city park, an administrative building erected in 1905.

Read also:

8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Hollywood

Lecce in Italy: sights and tips for the baroque city

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *